NHL Division Preview: The Metropolitan
The upcoming NHL season is less than two weeks away, and the excitement is palpable. The rosters are almost finalized, preseason is almost over, and the grind for a Stanley Cup Championship is about to begin.
This is the first post in a series of four where I will preview each division in the NHL, make my predictions, and choose who I think will be in the playoffs. There will be an article for each division in the league.
The Metropolitan Division is shaping up to be the best in the entire league. Many of the teams have either maintained their strong roster or drastically improved, meaning that this division is very likely to send five teams to the playoffs.
The Rangers were the champions of the Metropolitan last season, in the regular season and after the first two rounds, and they’ll look to defend their divisional prowess against some surging teams such as the Penguins, the Capitals, and the Islanders.
Expect a lot of competition, lots of great games and rivalries, and a close playoff race.
1) New York Rangers
2014-15 Record: 52-22-7
There’s no reason to bet against the Rangers for this upcoming season. They were the best team in the Metropolitan Division, and the entire league, last season, and they’ll likely be that good again.
The Presidents’ Trophy winners from last season bolstered their bottom four depth and retained their fantastic defensive core, not really losing much when it comes to scoring either. The loss of Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis obviously isn’t great, but you can practically count on improved seasons from many of the team’s second and third year players.
Any team that has an elite goalie such as Henrik Lundqvist has a good chance at winning any given game. Lundqvist is coming off of a season that saw him play just 46 games due to a neck injury, yet still manage to win 30 games. He was stellar in the postseason as well, posting an 11-8 record along with a 2.11 GAA and a .928 save percentage. Lundqvist is still at the top of his game, and we should see another 30 win season from him.
The Rangers defensive corps is still near the top in the NHL, perhaps rivaled only by the Calgary Flames and the Montreal Canadiens. They’re balanced through all three pairings, and the preseason proved that their backups, Raphael Diaz, Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath, are more than capable of stepping up in case of injuries.
Ryan McDonagh will be used to the captaincy role and the increased responsibilities, and I think we’ll see him return to the 2013-14 McDonagh that tallied 43 points. Keith Yandle is here for a full season, and with the Rangers offense, there’s nothing that suggests that he will tally lower than 50 points again. Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein are the always-steady, rock solid defensive defenseman, and Dan Boyle is a great puck mover, possession player and veteran presence. It’s a very balanced defensive corps.
The top six is loaded with talent and depth as well. Rick Nash was a serious Hart contender until the last two months of the season, finishing with a career high 42 goals. Derick Brassard scored 60 points for the first time in his career, and emerged as a number one center. Mats Zuccarello has excellent vision and creativity, and should be good for 50 points.
On the second line, you have Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider, who have played together on the same line for three years now. Derek Stepan had a fantastic season this past year, returning strongly from injury and averaging a point per game for a long stretch of the season. Chris Kreider continued to grow, and looks to be on track for a 30 goal season in the near future, and reaching that elite power forward status.
And lastly, the signings of Viktor Stalberg, Jarret Stoll, and the (likely) promotion of Oscar Lindberg makes the bottom six far better than it was last year. You can assume that guys like JT Miller, Jesper Fast and Emerson Etem will all improve, even by a little, and Kevin Hayes probably won’t dip below his 45 points from this season.
This is a deep team, a team full of speed and skill, and a lot of players that fit into Vigneault’s system. As a Rangers fan, it’s easy to be optimistic when looking at this team. I expect another first place Metropolitan finish and a long run in the playoffs. The Rangers have a great shot of returning to the Stanley Cup Finals.
2) Washington Capitals
2014-15 Record: 45-26-11, 101 PTS
The Washington Capitals had lofty expectations for this past season, with many people saying that this was the year where Alex Ovechkin would break the curse and play in the Conference Final. The Capitals had a 3-1 series lead, but the never-say-die Rangers came back and won in seven games.
After all of the disappointment, the team worked on getting better, building on their regular season success and making another run in the playoffs. In some ways, they did get better.
Their biggest move was the signing of “Mr. Game 7,” Justin Williams, from the Los Angeles Kings. Williams totaled 41 points (18-23-41) in 81 games last season, but he really makes his presence known during the playoffs.
During the 2013-14 playoffs, when the Kings beat the Rangers in five games, Williams was named as the winner of the Conn Smythe Award as the team’s MVP during the playoffs. In 26 games, he scored an astounding 25 points (9-16-25), including points in all three of the team’s Game 7s en route to the Cup.
Williams provides the team with a really solid second line winger, and he will definitely help a team that tends to blow leads in the playoffs and suffer collapses. He could drop to the third line if Barry Trotz wants to keep him at center, but Williams on the right wing with Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov makes more sense.
The other big addition was acquiring TJ Oshie from the St. Louis Blues, with the team looking to shed some cap and go in a different direction with some of their players. Oshie was part of a team that produced in the regular season but struggled in the playoffs, similar to the Capitals.
Oshie finished the season with 19 goals and 36 assists in 72 games, giving him 55 points and his second best season during his seven year NHL career. But just one goal and one assist in the playoffs leaves him with nine points in 30 playoff games.
Although a bit overrated, Oshie is still a pretty darn good player. I’d be surprised if he isn’t on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, which seems to be a very good first line. The Capitals top six is definitely better than it was last year.
But despite the additions of Williams and Oshie, the Capitals lost some of their better scorers. Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer combined for 40 goals and 77 points, and Eric Fehr (19-14-33) is on the Penguins. They lost some good depth guys, and are without a third line center since Fehr departed.
However, the Capitals have Braden Holtby, one of the league’s rising stars and a remarkable goaltender. His performance in the playoffs, particularly against the Rangers, backed up his strong regular season, and proved that he is one of the elite goalies in the league. He alone will steal some wins for the Caps.
Led by a strong defensive corps led by John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner, the Caps will surge to a second place finish in the East. But for me, there are still some question marks surrounding the Capitals before I pencil them in as a contender.
3) Pittsburgh Penguins
2014-15 Record: 43-27-12, 98 PTS
The Penguins are going to be competitive every year. Built around the ultra-talented Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, with Norris Trophy Finalist Kris Letang on their blue line and Marc Andre Fleury in net. They have a ton of talent in the top half of their roster, but it didn’t help in the playoffs, with Crosby and Malkin being bottled up by the Rangers defense, and a lack of depth players on the roster to pick up the slack.
In order to provide a bit of a scoring boost, the Penguins made a huge splash, trading for Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs, adding to their elite scoring talent on the team. Kessel has his choice of pairing with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. And if the Penguins are really pushing for a goal late in the game, Malkin can slide to wing and play with Crosby and Kessel. That’s insane.
Kessel isn’t a bad player, or a lazy player, or a bad locker room presence. Toronto is a really tough place to play, and the media is ruthless and unforgiving, choosing him as the scapegoat for the team’s problems. Apparently eating a hot dog a day and being shy is the reason that the franchise has been a failure for the past 12 seasons.
Now that he is out of the spotlight in Toronto, with new, skilled teammates by his side, the full support of his coaches and management, and a fresh start, I think Kessel will thrive. Crosby and Kessel will probably be the best duo in the Eastern Conference, and the Penguins will definitely get a scoring boost.
I do worry about their depth, amongst the forward group and the defense. Outside of the top two lines, there isn’t a whole bunch of capable offensive players. In fact, last season, only five forwards scored more than 30 points. With a lot of money invested in their elite stars, there isn’t much wiggle room to afford depth.
They somewhat addressed this with the signing of Eric Fehr, a very solid third liner with some speed, but they’ll need production from their youngsters, and the “big three” of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel will need to have great seasons. Also, Pascal Dupuis is returning from blood clots, and if he can stay healthy, that’ll provide a nice boost to the lineup.
Kris Letang is as good as they come on defense, and he’s fully capable of a Norris Trophy season every year he takes the ice. He’s dealt with significant injuries during the past two seasons, and Pittsburgh cannot afford to lose him for any extended period of time, due to their lack of depth on defense.
Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off of one of his better seasons in recent memory, and did everything that he could to keep the Penguins in each game against the Rangers during the first round of the playoffs. He proved that he could be counted on in net.
If Kris Letang can stay healthy, and the team finds some depth in their prospects, I think they’ll be pretty good. Marc-Andre Fleury was fantastic in the team’s five playoff games, and their injured defensive core also played well. While they’ll be improved, I still don’t think that they will make the jump back to the Eastern Conference Final. But they’ll likely get to the second round.
4) New York Islanders
2014-15 Record: 47-28-7
The Islanders didn’t make a ton of moves in the offseason, picking up a backup goalie in Thomas Greiss and retaining their own players. But sometimes the best move is no move. The Islanders, preparing to play their first ever season away from the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, are a team on the rise.
Isles’ GM Garth Snow deserves his fair share of criticism, but he’s done a pretty good job assembling a very young, talented squad centered around stars like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Last season, Snow pried Johnny Boychuk from the Bruins and Nick Leddy from the Blackhawks, giving them a much stronger defense.
The Islanders have also worked on locking up their core so they can continue to grow and build over the years. Tavares is under contract for the next three years, Boychuk and Leddy signed long term extensions, and rookie forward Anders Lee signed a four year extension.
Under Jack Capuano, the team made it to the playoffs, falling to the Capitals in the first round. The team has not won a playoff series since 1991, but the future is looking bright. The Islanders were a dangerous scoring team last year, boasting depth across all four lines, star power on offense, big scoring forwards like Anders Lee, and strong two way defensemen in Boychuk and Leddy. Jaroslav Halak gave them a steady presence in net as well, and he will be back for next season.
Like the Penguins with their star power, any team that has John Tavares, who was my personal choice for the Hart Trophy, and Kyle Okposo is going to be pretty good. Not only will they light up the scoresheet, they make their teammates better. The Isles have one of the best fourth lines in hockey, consisting of Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas, and scoring threats across all four lines. It’s a well-rounded team, and they could finally be primed to win a playoff series this season.
Like every team, there are question marks for me. The first is in net. Jaroslav Halak got off to a hot start last season, but I still wasn’t sold. His numbers dipped as the season went on, and he finished with okay stats, apart from his 38 wins, which is a team record. To me, he’s an average goalie that tends to go on some hot streaks. I’m not sure he’s the goalie to lead the team on a long playoff run.
I’m also not a big fan of Jack Capuano. He made some really questionable decisions in the playoffs, like scratching Anders Lee (25-16-41) in Game 7, when the team mustered a lousy 11 shots on goal. Some writers and fans have criticized him for his decision making, and I think they could use a better coach behind the bench.
The Isles are one of the teams that will challenge the Rangers. I see them breaking their 25 year drought without a playoff series win. I have them as the first wild card team, which means they could wind up playing the first two rounds against the Atlantic Division foes, or in the Metro. Depending on where they end up, that’ll determine how far they go in the playoffs. If they stay in the Metro for the first two rounds, they’re out by round two. But if they land in the Atlantic division, they could surprise some teams and make a run to the Conference Finals.
5) Columbus Blue Jackets
2014-15 Record: 42-35-5
The Rangers are still my pick to win the Metropolitan Division. But if I had to make a surprise pick, it would be the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Jackets were perhaps the unluckiest team in the NHL last season. Nearly everyone went down with injuries, with the team leading the league with over 500 man games lost due to injury. That’s absurd, and it’s the sole reason why they weren’t in the playoffs.
When they were healthy at the end of the season, the Jackets were red hot. They finished out the year with a 16-2-1 record in their last 19 games, including a 9-0-1 record in the last 10 games. They were easily the best team in the league during the last month and a half of the season.
On top of that, they are loaded with talent, even more so after the offseason. New captain Nick Foligno led the team with 73 points (31-42-73), with his linemate Ryan Johansen not far behind with a total of 71 points (26-45-71).
They also stole Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers before last season, and he rewarded the Jackets with a 28 goal, 32 assist season, his best season since 2011-12 with the Flyers. Brandon Dubinsky can also easily break 50 or 60 points if he can stay healthy for a whole season.
Their defense is led by Jack Johnson, and they have a decent group of steady, veteran d-men to back him up. They also selected talented defenseman Zach Werenski out of Michigan with the 8th pick in the draft, and he could potentially challenge for a roster spot. This remains the biggest question mark for me.
Their big move in the offseason was acquiring Brandon Saad from the cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks, subsequently signing him to a massive six year extension. The 22 year old winger is coming off of his best season, breaking the 20 goal mark and the 50 point plateau for the first time in his career. He’s not even close to hitting his prime, and his presence in the lineup will be huge.
Now put that team in front of a good goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, and the Jackets look to be ready for a massive season, and maybe their best season as a franchise.
I have them behind the Islanders and likely making the playoffs, at least as a wild card, solely because of their inability to stay healthy. There are question marks surrounding guys like Brandon Dubinski, David Clarkson and Bobrovsky. If they can stay healthy for a whole year, they should be everybody’s dark horse pick.
6) Philadelphia Flyers
2014-15 Record: 33-31-18
The Flyers had a bit of a rocky season as well, dealing with some injuries and inconsistencies and finishing sixth in the Metropolitan. Under new head coach Dave Hakstol, I think the Flyers will be more competitive, but still an outlier when it comes to the playoffs.
Philadelphia has one of the most dynamic duos in the entire league, rivaling Backstrom and Ovechkin, Crosby/Malkin and Kessel, and Getzlaf and Perry. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are lethal together, and they can turn the tide of a game in seconds.
Voracek led the Flyers with 81 points (22-59-81), and was just a single assist behind Nicklas Backstrom for the league lead. Giroux wasn’t too far behind with 73 points (25-48-73), but he’s capable of an 80 or even a 90 point season. Coupled with net-front specialist Wayne Simmonds and guys like Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, they have a decent offense, but lack depth.
Trading Scott Hartnell was a massive mistake, and RJ Umberger comes nowhere near his goal scoring ability. Vincent Lecavalier is on his last legs, and the Flyers were playing him for as little as five minute a game at some points. There isn’t much past Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds.
They’re also thin on defense. Mark Streit had a nice year with nine goals and 43 assists, and Michael Del Zotto had a bit of a resurgence, posting a 32 points season (10-22-32). But after that, there really isn’t much, and nobody is outstanding at the defensive aspect of the game. That’s a problem.
If Steve Mason had something resembling a proper defense in front of him, then this would be a good team. But they’re rebuilding in a sense, and they’re not going to be a playoff team.
7) New Jersey Devils
2014-15 Record: 32-36-14
The Devils are one of two Metropolitan teams in full rebuild mode. There’s not really much hope for the playoffs here, as they will likely use these 82 games to develop some of their younger prospects, on both offense and defense. It’s also John Hynes’ first year as the head coach in New Jersey, and he’ll look to whip the Devils into shape.
The biggest acquisition this offseason was Kyle Palmeiri, coming over from the Ducks for two draft picks. Palmeiri grew up in Montvale, New Jersey, and will be counted on more heavily for his offensive production than he was in Anaheim. Palmeiri tallied 14 goals and 15 assists in 57 regular season games.
They also signed veteran forward Jiri Tlusty to add some more offense and stability, but he will likely be a trade chip for draft pieces at the deadline.
The Devils will be looking for guys like Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique to grow this season. They need more out of them, and they counting on them to help lead the younger forwards like Stefan Matteau and others.
Pavel Zacha is one player that they have high hopes for. He’s made the final cut for the roster, but at just 18 years old, he may be better off in junior hockey.
They’ll also be looking for veteran leader Andy Greene to help the development of guys like Jon Merrill and Damon Severson on defense. Veteran, and underrated, goaltender Cory Schneider will be there to help.
8) Carolina Hurricanes
2014-15 Record: 30-41-11
There’s not much to talk about here. The Hurricanes are a rebuilding franchise. After buying out Alexander Semin, who never really found his footing in Carolina, the Canes will falter out relatively early.
Unlike the Devils, the Canes have a few standout pieces offensively. Captain Eric Staal is capable of a 60 point season, but he hasn’t been supplemented with many great pieces.
Their firstround pick, Noah Hanifin, who signed a three year entry level contract with the Hurricanes. He has a chance to play in the NHL this season, and develop alongside Justin Faulk, perhaps one of the best young defenseman in the league.
Look for the Hurricanes to develop their younger prospect, and work on guys like Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask, Riley Nash and Michal Jordan. Carolina will be in the running for a high draft pick.
Posted on September 28, 2015, in In the Crease and tagged Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dylan McIlrath, Henrik Lundqvist, Madison Square Garden, Mats Zuccarello, Metropolitan Division, MSG, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New York Rangers blog, NHL, NYR, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Rangers blog, Rick Nash, Tanner Glass, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.